India vs Australia: Steve Smith and Co breathed life into hosts' predictable and monotonous home season
Australia outplayed India at their own game. They outclassed the hosts in every department. They had prepared better than the hosts.
India 3-0 South Africa. Wow! Totally outclassed the No 1 Test side. Brilliant performance.
India 2-0 West Indies. India were expected to win this.
India 3-0 New Zealand. A whitewash was predictable.
India 4-0 England. Expected a fight, but nah! Same old stuff. India proving to be a superpower at home.
India 1-0 Bangladesh. Nineteen unbeaten Tests in a row. It's getting a boring now. The routine keeps repeating.
Australia are up next. India are rampant. "If Australia play well, India will win 3-0. That is if they play well. Otherwise, 4-0," says former India spinner Harbhajan Singh.
Nothing's going to change, you know that. An inexperienced side against a fire-breathing dragon. You know the result. It's all about whether Australia can achieve damage-limitation rather than even thinking of heroics.
It starts as expected, a collapse following a steady start. But then Mitchell Starc decides to go berserk. The script changes – not temporarily but permanently. There is disbelief, there is awe, there is shock, there is surprise as Australia dominate session after session. This is not happening, the mind blabbers. But it is. The No 1 side is being torn to shreds. You were not ready for this. This wasn't in the script. Even the Australian fans are dumbstruck. But it happened. It finally happened. The 13-year-old voodoo was broken. The 19-match unbeaten streak too. Australia did the unthinkable and it brought joy, especially to the neutral fans.
Sports' greatest beauty is its unpredictability. However, with India it was getting all too predictable. From one Test match to the next the script remained the same. Only the star cast in the opposition changed. Every time Virat Kohli went in to bat, you knew a hundred was coming, if not a double. You knew India would pile on the runs and then the spinners would scythe through the opposition, with a mandatory Ravichandran Ashwin five-for in both innings. This predictability made the contests dull. It made them boring.
Yes, India have been dominant. Yes, they have been playing like the No 1 side. Yes, it has all been beautiful watching Kohli score runs at will and Ashwin take wickets with ease, but you needed something different. You needed a change. It might not be the case with most home fans but it certainly was for the neutrals. You need competition in sport, or else it will all be a dour experience. It's this competition on which sport thrives.
None of the teams that played against India in the latter's home season provided significant competition. New Zealand was an unmitigated disaster. England provided some resistance but then came crashing down like a drunken party-goer getting out of a late night taxi. Bangladesh asphyxiated. In nine matches of the home season before Australia came across, India were given a real scare on just one occasion - the final day of the first Test against England in Rajkot, while chasing 310 runs.
While sustained dominance might help create new fans it may make people lose interest too. Watching Formula One legend Michael Schumacher win season after season became monotonous after a while and you could sense people craving for a new champion. Lewis Hamilton even admitted that he didn't watch races when Schumacher dominated. Then when Sebastian Vettel was dominating the racing charts and was on the cusp of his fourth consecutive championship in 2013, Hamilton feared that fans would lose interest in Formula One because Vettel had no competition.
"I remember waking up to watch the start of the race, then going to sleep and waking up when it ended because I knew what would happen," said Hamilton. "I am pretty sure a lot of people are doing that today."
Jenson Button then went on to say that the Vettel era wasn't as boring as the Schumacher one. "The racing is better than when Michael won the championship and with Michael it felt like 'Well, he is going to win it next year as well.' But I don't think it feels like that now. Every year it doesn't feel like 'Well, Sebastian is going to win it again," Button said.
In tennis, when Rafael Nadal was absolutely bossing the clay courts at will, there was a strong need, after a certain point of time, to change the trend. Similarly, the Australian cricket team was absolutely rampant from 1999 to 2007, and when India broke Australia's winning streaks, first in 2001 and then in 2008, it brought immense joy to the fans.
During the current home season, India's domination had become as predictable as a Shahid Afridi brain fade in a crunch situation. It became boring after a point of time.
It was like a Bollywood movie where, whatever happens, you know, in the end, in Ravi Shastri's words, the hero will be the real winner. The cricket world needed a change and finally, Australia provided it.
However, the manner in which they provided it was more fascinating. They outplayed India at their own game. They outclassed the hosts in every department. They had prepared better than the hosts. They roped in former India all-rounder Sridharan Sriram to mentor Australia's spinners, which is proving to be a masterstroke. They also hired England spinner Monty Panesar – who had ripped through the fabled Indian batting line-up in 2012 – as spin consultant for the tour. Then there was the Dubai trip to get acclimatised to Indian pitches and conditions. The practice pitches were doctored to simulate match scenarios.
Their lead spinner, Nathan Lyon, spent valuable time studying Ashwin. The batsmen worked on defence and technique. They managed to execute it out in the middle. They bowled better lengths compared to Ashwin and Jadeja – the top two bowlers in the ICC Test rankings. Their batsmen applied themselves better at the crease. They fielded brilliantly. They shot India out for their lowest aggregate total at home. Australia's achievement was all the more stellar considering that India had amassed 600-plus totals in their last three innings. On a turning track, they looked more dangerous than a drunkard juggling with carving knives and handed India a complete rout.
Not too long ago, this Australian team was one at the edge of a precipice, nervously looking down at an infinite abyss below. Fresh young blood was infused in place of dead wood. Harbhajan described it as the weakest Australian side to tour India. "I don't think this team has the wherewithal to cope with a quality Indian side in the Indian conditions," Harbhajan had said.
However, Australia managed the unthinkable, which no other team had in the past five years on Indian soil - maintain a stranglehold over India with utter dominance for most of the match. They have now planted seeds of doubt in the mind of the Indians – whether to go for turners, which backfired, or flat tracks? If they go for the latter, then how to stop Steve Smith? Should they go with a six batsmen-four bowlers combination or stick with a 'five-five'? India have to do all the thinking now.
Australia dared to dream. And most importantly, that dream has breathed life and much-needed excitement into a predictable, long and one-sided home season which was getting more and more boring, day by day.
Whether Kohli took the decision to quit T20I captaincy to purely manage the workload or the criticism got to him will remain a mystery for a while, but all things considered, it appears a bold move that should only benefit Indian cricket and him.
"A lot of good cricketers think what is good for them because he must have thought for himself. I'm sure he thinks that he may be able to perform better if he keeps away from leadership (in) this T20 (format) or something," Borde said.
Regarded as one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time in the women''s game, Jhulan began her journey in international cricket nearly two decades ago and, at 38, she is still going strong but without enough help from the other end on a consistent basis.